In Basque Country, the pandemic has served as a reminder of the extent to which food forms the fabric of local life. Eating well is a priority throughout Spain’s northern autonomous community, and seems, to some local chefs, even more so now.
The region is an endless feast. Culinary destinations beckon beyond the many Michelin-starred restaurants. You’ll find pintxo bars littered with waxy paper napkins, and people grazing on two-bite savory snacks, like croquetas or Spanish tortilla, atop a slice of bread and skewered with a toothpick; and sidrerías (cider bars) tucked in the lush green mountains, with patrons slicing into a fire-grilled steak the size of a forearm while sipping fizzy natural cider.
“Our culture is based on food,” said Álvaro Garrido, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred Mina, a restaurant in Bilbao’s La Vieja neighborhood. “Geographically, we’re very lucky,” he said, with access to fresh seafood from the Cantabrian Sea, high-quality produce from small, family-run farms, and meat and dairy from livestock raised on verdant pastures. The result is a strong culinary heritage that even the edgiest chefs hold sacred — and, of course, draws food worshipers from around the world.
Mr. Garrido and his partner, Lara Martín, who runs Mina’s front-of-house, earned their first Michelin star in 2013 and have since garnered a following. On rare days off, when Mr. Garrido is not in the kitchen with the Mina “warriors,” as he calls his staff, the native Bilbaino visits suppliers or enjoys a meal at a nearby restaurant prepared by one of his peers.
I first interviewed Mr. Garrido in December of 2019, to tap into his extensive restaurant knowledge and discover some of his favorite locales in Basque Country. (I worked as a kitchen intern at Mina for about six weeks in 2014.) Shortly after, the pandemic brought the hospitality industry to a sputtering standstill. Restaurants across Spain were forced to shutter by government mandate, some never reopened.
But some of the places on Mr. Garrido’s list managed to quickly pivot their businesses. Zarate, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bilbao known for its pristine seafood, converted a street-facing slice of its dining room into a seafood counter with takeaway dishes. Others waited until outdoor dining was approved and doubled down on their terrace service. Because of the largely extroverted, deeply food-centered culture, local customers were eager to return.
Then, there was that characteristically Basque spirit of resilience, which helped restaurants to navigate during some of the bleakest moments of the pandemic — the people of the region are no strangers to persevering in the face of adversity. Amaia Garcia de Albizu, the manager of Arrea! and sister of chef-owner Edorta Lamo, told me, “when the crisis arrived, it reminded us of our grandparents during the Spanish Civil War.” Mindful of the hardships of their ancestors, they did their best to soldier on and maintain a sense of gratitude.
Ultimately, all of the restaurants on Mr. Garrido’s list pulled through the pandemic. The national tourism industry association, Exceltur, predicted in a January report that Spain’s tourism gross domestic product could reach about 88 percent of its prepandemic levels in 2022 (135 billion euros, or about $138 billion) — that’s about 47 billion above 2021, though that is still 19 billion euros lower than about 155 billion of 2019. With the return of tourism, the region has boomeranged back to life and the vibe among many restaurant owners is cautiously optimistic.
Here, Mr. Garrido shares five restaurants that should be on your radar the next time you visit Basque Country.
“Arrea! is in Kanpezu, a small town in the middle of the mountains,” Mr. Garrido said. The chef, Edorta Lamo, made a name for himself at A Fuego Negro, the San Sebastián restaurant where he reinvented the classic pintxo. (Sadly, A Fuegro Nuegro closed during the pandemic after 14 years.) For Arrea!, Mr. Lamo returned to his familial roots in Kanpezu (or Campezo in Spanish) to pioneer a gastronomic style that can only be described as “mountain cuisine.”
“They cook using products from the mountain — wild herbs and produce that the chef and his team collect themselves,” said Mr. Garrido. The Arrea! team also works with local honey, truffles, rare native plants and various types of game.
The restaurant’s various spaces each offer their own dining style. You can sidle up at the bar with a wild boar burger or in the dining room, order venison “camouflaged” by root vegetables. Though guests have to reserve at least 24 hours in advance to experience the nightly tasting menu (95 euros, or $97), lunchtime may be the best bet for experiencing Mr. Lamo’s vision at a relative bargain — the menu del dia will set you back just 20 euros, and a more extensive midday menu is available for 40.
Subida al frontón, 46, 01110 Santikurutze Kanpezu, Álava, Spain
In the small town of Amorebieta-Etxano, about 20 minutes outside of Bilbao, you’ll find one of Basque Country’s best-kept secrets: Jauregibarria, the restaurant where the chef Beñat Ormaetxea is quietly advancing avant-garde Basque cuisine. “Beñat makes traditional plates with modern touches, working with local products like mushrooms, bacalao and ‘teardrop’ spring peas,” said Mr. Garrido. The latter are available just a few weeks each year.
In a restored farmhouse with views of the surrounding botanical park of the same name, Jauregibarria, you’ll find a menu where classic Basque ingredients are juxtaposed with innovative techniques and creative flavors — like roasted baby squid, or begihaundi, which translates as “big eyes” in Euskera, the local language, with a crispy form of ink; or acorn-fed Iberian pork cheeks stewed in Rioja red wine. Tasting menus start at 45 euros for five courses.
Chef Ormaetxea said that local clientele kept business humming during the pandemic, even when tourism had all but ceased. “We’re near three major industrial hubs, so business people come to dine regularly,” he said, adding that the temporary closures made people hungrier than ever to dine out. “It’s like when someone prohibits something, it makes you want it even more.”
In the most recent Michelin Guide for Spain and Portugal, Jauregibarria was included as a recommended restaurant. “Sooner or later, they’ll give him a Michelin star,” Mr. Garrido said.
Barrio Bideaur, 4, 48340 Amorebieta-Etxano, Spain
You probably know txakoli as the refreshing, barely effervescent, typically white wine from Basque Country. It’s also the name for rural houses where Basques historically gathered to eat a simple meal, like eggs with chorizo, and share a jug of wine. Today, some restaurants still carry the designation “txakoli,” as a nod to the traditional comfort foods and homey hospitality they offer.
Nestled in the hills overlooking Bilbao, “just a couple kilometers from where I grew up,” said Mr. Garrido, Txakoli Simón is a time-tested local favorite. “Here, you eat simple and traditional dishes, like fried eggs with red peppers, blood morcilla and excellent quality T-bone steak.” Their steak, or txuleta, is from Galician cattle and considered by some to be the best in Bilbao — no small feat for a region that prides itself on its grill culture.
The general manager, Oscar García, told me that because Txakoli Simón is mainly an “asador,” or grill restaurant, it didn’t make sense for them to dabble in takeaway options when restaurants were mandated to close. (Txakoli Simón’s specialty steak, txuleta, is 49 euros per person.) But as soon as they did open, they were in high demand. Their clientele, about 85 percent local, according to Mr. García, took advantage of the restaurant’s spacious outdoor seating areas in the midst of nature. Now, said Mr. García, business is back to usual.
Camino San Roque, 89, 48015 Bilbao, Spain
“Their tasting menu will teach you about the Cantabrian Sea,” Mr. Garrido said of the Michelin-starred Zarate in the heart of Bilbao. The chef, Sergio Ortiz de Zarate, got his start working with seafood in Lekeitio, a small fishing village on the Cantabrian coast where Zarate sources much of his menu today. Though you can order traditional Basque dishes like kokotxos (the fleshy lower part of hake jaw) à la carte at his eponymous restaurant, the 11-plate tasting menu is a true undersea expedition. A meal might start with a pair of shimmering anchovies, continue with a garlicky tangle of baby eels and end many courses later with a perfectly executed hake with pil pil sauce, a regional favorite made of olive oil, garlic and guindilla pepper.
While the pandemic-era seafood counter, La Lonja de Zarate, has since closed, the dining room is back in full swing. Whether you spring for a tasting menu (105 euros for 11 courses) or choose your own adventure (entrees start at 25 euros), Chef Zarate insists on staying true to each carefully selected product, enhancing rather than masking its essence.
Licenciado Poza, 65, 48013, Bilbao, Spain
“Zuberoa is one of the most famed restaurants in all of Euskadi,” said Mr. Garrido, using the Euskera word for Basque Country. Inside a 600-year-old Basque farmhouse in the village of Oiartzun, near San Sebastián, the chef Hilario Arbelaitz prepares elegant takes on traditional Basque cuisine. The family-run restaurant, which holds one Michelin star, had little trouble getting diners back in the door once pandemic restrictions relaxed. “Our restaurant is known for the number of years we’ve been functioning. We’re a restaurant passed down through several generations,” said the pastry chef Jose Marí Arbelaitz.
“This is the restaurant where chefs go to enjoy emblematic local dishes, like foie with chickpea cream and their mythical potato purée,” said Mr. Garrido. He also notes that their game dishes, like venison or roasted pigeon with liver toasts, are not to be missed. (Entrees start at 38.50 euros. The nine-course tasting menu costs 159.50 euros.)
Araneder Bidea, 20180 Gipuzkoa, Spain